Chapter 9 The Culture Of Character

Chapter 9

The Culture Of Character

The Treatment of Defects

The Ultimate Object of Education––Suppose the parent see that the formation of character is the ultimate object of education; see, too, that character is, in the rough, the inherited tendencies of the child, modified by his surroundings, but that character may be debased or ennobled by education; that it is the parents' part to distinguish the first faint budding of family traits; to greet every fine trait as the highest sort of family possession to be nourished and tended with care; to keep up at the same time the balance of qualities by bringing forward that which is of little account––the more so when they must deliver their child from eccentricity, pitfall to the original and forceful nature;––suppose they have taken all this into the role of their duties, there yet remains much for parents to do.

The Defects of our Qualities––We are open to what the French call the defects of our qualities; and as ill weeds grow apace, the defects of a fine character may well choke out the graces. A little maiden loves with the passion and devotion of a woman, but she is exacting of return, and jealous of intrusion, even with her mother. A boy is ambitious; he will be leader in the nursery, and his lead is wholesome for the rest; but there is the pugnacious little brother who will not 'follow my leader' and the two can hardly live in the same rooms; the able boy is a tyrant when his will is crossed. There is the timid, affectionate little maid who will even tell a fib to shield her sister; and there is the high-spirited girl who never lies, but who does, now and then, bully; and so on without end. What is the parents' part here? To magnify the quality; make the child feel that he or she has a virtue to guard––a family possession, and, at the same time, a gift from above. A little simple reasonable teaching may help; but let us beware of much talk. 'Have you quite finished, mother?' said a bright little girl of five in the most polite way in the world. She had listened long to her mother's sermonising, and had many things on hand. A wise word here and there may be of use, but much more may be done by carefully hindering each 'defect of its quality' from coming into play. Give the ill weeds no room to grow. Then, again, the defect may often be reclaimed and turned back to feed the quality itself. The ambitious boy's love of power may be worked into a desire to win by love his restive little brother. The passion of the loving girl may be made to include all whom her mother loves.

Children with Defects––There is another aspect of the subject of heredity and the duties it entails. As the child of long lineage may well inherit much of what was best in his ancestors––fine physique, clear intellect, high moral worth––so also he has his risks. As some one puts it, not all the women have been brave, nor all the men chaste. We know how the tendency to certain forms of disease runs in families; temper and temperament, moral and physical nature alike, may come down with a taint. An unhappy child may, by some odd of nature, appear to have left out the good and taken into him only the unworthy. What can parents do in such a case? They may, not reform him––perhaps that is beyond human skill and care, once he has become all that is possible to his nature––but transform him, so that the being he was calculated to become never develops at all; but another being comes to light blest with every grace of which he had only the defect. This brings us to a beneficent law of Nature, which underlies the whole subject of early training, and especially so this case of the child whose mother must bring him forth a second time into a life of beauty and harmony. To put it in an old form of words––the words of Thomas à Kempis––what seems to me the fundamental law of education is no more than this: 'Habit is driven out by habit.' People have always known that 'Use is second nature,' but the reason why, and the scope of the saying, these are discoveries of recent days.

A Malicious Child––A child has an odious custom, so constant, that it is his quality, will be character, if you let him alone; he is spiteful, he is sly, he is sullen. No one is to blame for it; it was born in him. What are you to do with such inveterate habit of nature? Just this; treat it as a bad habit, and set up the opposite good habit. Henry is more than mischievous; he is a malicious little boy. There are always tears in the nursery, because, with 'pinches, nips, and bobs,' he is making some child wretched. Even his pets are not safe; he has done his canary to death by poking at it with a stick through the bars of its cage; howls from his dog, screeches from his cat, betray him in some vicious trick. He makes fearful faces at his timid little sister; sets traps with string for the housemaid with her water-cans to fall over; there is no end to the malicious tricks, beyond the mere savagery of untrained boyhood, which come to his mother's ear. What is to be done? 'Oh, he will grow out of it!' say the more hopeful who pin their faith to time. But many an experienced mother will say, 'You can't cure him; what is in will out, and he will be a pest to society all his life.' Yet the child may be cured in a month if the mother will set herself to the task with both hands and of set purpose; at any rate, the cure may be well begun, and that is half done.

Special Treatment––Let the month of treatment be a deliciously happy month to him, be living all the time in the sunshine of his mother's smile. Let him not be left to himself to meditate or carry out ugly pranks. Let him feel himself always under a watchful, loving, and approving eye. Keep him happily occupied, well amused. All this, to break the old custom which is assuredly broken when a certain length of time goes by without its repetition. But one habit drives out another. Lay new lines in the old place. Open avenues of kindness for him. Let him enjoy, daily, hourly, the pleasure of pleasing. Get him into the way of making little plots for the pleasure of the rest––a plaything of his contriving, a dish of strawberries of his gathering, shadow rabbits to amuse the baby; take him on kind errands to poor neighbours, carrying and giving of his own. For a whole month the child's whole heart is flowing out in deeds and schemes and thoughts of lovingkindness, and the ingenuity which spent itself in malicious tricks becomes an acquisition to his family when his devices are benevolent. Yes; but where is his mother to get time in these encroaching days to put Henry under special treatment? She has other children and other duties, and simply cannot give herself up for a month or a week to one child. If the boy were ill, in danger, would she find time for him then? Would not other duties go to the wall, and leave her little son, for the time, her chief object in life?

Moral Ailments need Prompt Attention––Now here is a point all parents are not enough awake to––that serious mental and moral ailments require prompt purposeful, curative treatment, to which the parents must devote themselves for a short time, just as they would to a sick child. Neither punishing him nor letting him alone––the two lines of treatment most in favour––ever cured a child of any moral evil. If parents recognised the efficacy and the immediate effect of treatment, they would never allow the spread of ill weeds. For let this be borne in mind, whatever ugly quality disfigures the child, he is but as a garden overgrown with weeds: the more prolific the weeds, more fertile the soil; he has within him every possibility of beauty of life and character. Get rid of the weeds and foster the flowers. It is hardly too much to say that most of the failures in life or character made by man or woman are due to the happy-go-lucky philosophy of the parents. They say, 'The child is so young; he does not know any better; but all that will come right as he grows up.' Now, a fault of character left to itself can do no other than strengthen. An objection may be raised to this counsel of short and determined curative treatment. The good results do not last, it is said; a week or two of neglect, and you lose the ground gained: Henry is as likely as ever to grow up of the 'tiger' order, a Steerforth or a Grandcourt. But here science comes to help us to cheerful certainty.

There is no more interesting subject of inquiry open just now than that of the interaction between the thoughts of the mind and the configuration of the brain. The fair conclusion appears to be that each is greatly the cause of the other; that the character of the persistent thoughts actually shapes the cerebrum, while on the configuration of this organ depends in turn the manner of thoughts we think.

Automatic Brain Action––Thought is, for the most part, automatic. We think, without intention or effort, as we have been accustomed to think, just as we walk or write without any conscious arrangement of muscles. Mozart could write an overture, laughing all the time at the little jokes his wife made to keep him awake; to be sure he had thought it out before, and there it was, ready to be written; but he did not consciously try for these musical thoughts, they simply came to him in proper succession. Coleridge thought 'Kubla Khan' in his sleep, and wrote it when he awoke; and, indeed, he might as well have been asleep all the time for all he had to do with the production of most of his thoughts.

   'Over the buttons she falls asleep
   And stitches them on in a dream,'

––is very possible and likely. For one thing which we consciously set ourselves to think about, a thousand words and acts come from us every day of their own accord; we don't think of them at all. But all the same, only a poet or a musician could thus give forth poetry or music, and it is the words and acts which come from us without conscious thought which afford the true measure of what we are. Perhaps this is why such serious weight is attached to our every 'idle word'––words spoken without intention or volition.

We are getting, by degrees, to Henry and his bad habits. Somehow or other, the nervous tissue of the cerebrum 'grows to' the thoughts that are allowed free course in the mind. How, science hardly ventures to guess as yet; but, for the sake of illustration, let us imagine that certain thoughts of the mind run to and fro in the nervous substance of the cerebrum until they have made a way there: busy traffic in same order of thoughts will always be kept up, there is the easy way for them to run in. Take a child with an inherited tendency to a resentful temper: he has begun to think resentful thoughts; finds them easy and gratifying; he goes on; evermore the ugly traffic becomes more easy and natural, and resentfulness is rapidly becoming himself, that trait in his character which people couple with his name.

One Custom Overcomes Another––But one custom overcomes another. The watchful mother sets up new tracks in other directions; and she sees to it, that while she is leading new thoughts through the new way, the old, deeply worn 'way of thinking' is quite disused. Now, the cerebrum is in a state of rapid waste and rapid growth. The new growth takes shape from the new thought: the old is lost in the steady waste, and the child is reformed, physically as well as morally and mentally. That the nervous tissue of the cerebrum should be thus the instrument of the mind need not surprise us when we think how the muscles and joints of the tumbler, the vocal organs of the singer, the finger-ends of the watchmaker; the palate of the tea-taster, grow to the uses they are steadily put to; and, much more, both in the case of the brain and all other organs, grow to the uses they are earliest put to.

This meets in a wonderful way the case of the parent who sets himself to cure a moral failing. He sets up the course of new thoughts, and hinders those of the past, until the new thoughts shall have become automatic and run of their own accord. All the time a sort of disintegration is going on in the place that held the disused thoughts; and here is the parent's advantage. If the boy return (as, from inherited tendency, he still may do) to his old habits of thought, behold, there is no more place for them in his physical being; to make a new place is a work of time, and in this work the parent can overtake and hinder him without much effort

A Material Register of Educational Efforts––Here, indeed, more than anywhere, 'Except the Lord build the house, they labour but in vain that build it'; but surely intelligent co-operation in this divine work is our bounden duty and service. The training of the will, the instruction of the conscience, and, so far as it lies with us, the development of the divine life in the child, are carried on simultaneously with this training in the habits of a good life; and these last will carry the child safely over the season of infirm will, immature conscience, until he is able to take, under direction from above, the conduct of his life, the moulding of his character, into his own hands. It is a comfort to believe that there is even a material register of our educational labours being made in the very substance of the child's brain; and, certainly, here we have a note of warning as to the danger of letting ill ways alone in the hope that all will come right by-and-by.

Mother-love is not Sufficient for Child-training––Some parents may consider all this as heavy hearing; that even to 'think on these things' is enough to take the joy and spontaneousness out of their sweet relationship; and that, after all, parents' love and the grace of God should be sufficient for the bringing-up of children. No one can feel on this subject more sincere humility than those who have not the honour to be parents; the insight and love with which parents––mothers most so––are blest is a divine gift which fills lookers-on with reverence, even in many a cottage home; but we have only to observe how many fond parents make foolish children to be assured that something more is wanted. There are appointed ways, not always the old paths, but new ones, opened up step by step as we go. The labour of the mother who sets herself to understand her work is not increased, but infinitely lightened; as for life being made heavy with the thought of these things, once make them our own, and we act upon them as naturally as upon such knowledge––scientific also––as, loose your hold of a cup, and it falls. A little painstaking thought and effort in the first place, and all comes easy.